Responding to a China on the March

December 8, 2020

Editor’s Note: This piece, written by former Architectural Record editor Clifford Pearson, has been adapted from its original version and is used with permission here.


I’m not a political scientist or an economist or a military expert, but I have covered China as a journalist since the early 1990s and have learned a thing or two about the country by viewing it through the particular lens of architecture. First of all, it is many places with different peoples and languages. Go to the mountains of Sichuan, the river deltas of Guangdong, and the desert landscapes of Gansu and you’ll find an incredible diversity of attitudes, customs, and cuisines. Same as a road trip around America would.

In the nearly three decades since I first visited China, the country has been transformed into a global juggernaut. While this may have surprised many in the West, it is seen in China as a return to its rightful place at the center of the world. There’s a reason why the Chinese think of their country as “the Middle Kingdom” and see the previous two centuries as a brief (for China) period of humiliation at the hands of unscrupulous Western nations.

On my first trip to China in the autumn of 1994, I shook my head at all the new buildings clad in white bathroom tile and fitted with reflective blue glass — materials that seemed “modern” to the locals. When I visited the offices of a major architectural publisher in Beijing I noticed large piles of cabbage on the balconies of an adjacent building. They were the allotments of winter produce that the publishing company gave members of its work unit as part of their housing.

Today, all those blue-glass buildings are either gone or dwarfed by architecturally ambitious structures that grace the pages of magazines like the one I used to work for. Many of the most innovative buildings in the world rise from the streets of Chinese cities. In a few brief decades, China has developed the wealth, sophistication, technological skill, and ambition to build world-class architecture. Driving this boom has been a powerful competitive streak in the Chinese character, not dissimilar to that of America’s.

During this same period, China has also nurtured a generation of talented local architects. Many of them earned graduate degrees in the United States, Britain, and Europe, then returned home to set up their own practices. Because the nation was building so much, these young designers got the opportunity to work on the kind of ambitious projects that their American counterparts could only dream of. Although not well known outside of China, practitioners such as Pei Zhu, Zhang Ke, Xu Tiantian, Liu Jiakun, Neri & Hu, Urbanus, and Atelier Deshaus have been busy creating remarkable architecture around the country. In 2012, Wang Shu became the first Chinese architect to win the Pritzker Prize.

After establishing thriving practices in China, a few of these architects came back to the West to run academic programs, including Yung Ho Chang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ma Qingyun at the University of Southern California. (Disclosure: I worked for Mr. Ma at USC, teaching and running the school’s American Academy in China.) One Chinese architect, Ma Yansong, is a rising star both at home and abroad.

So a vibrant back-and-forth exchange is shaping the relationship between China and the United States in terms of architecture. Despite current geopolitical challenges, American architecture firms remain busy in China and Chinese architects are starting to make their mark in the U.S. Thousands of Chinese students are studying architecture at U.S. schools and when they graduate many of them work for American firms doing business in China. In 2018, China had 662,000 students studying abroad, more than any other country, and those in the U.S. accounted for a third of all international students here.

Engaging China has been remarkably rewarding for American architects and the architectural profession in general. According to the American Institute of Architects, China was the biggest market for American architecture firms working internationally in 2017—accounting for 26.8% of gross billings for foreign projects, compared to 19.9% for Western Europe, 11.6% for East Asia and the Pacific, 11.4% for Canada, 7.3% for the Middle East and North Africa, and 6.8% for South America.

While China now has a deep pool of talented native architects, it still relies on large foreign firms to design many of its biggest projects. For example, American architects have designed nine of the 10 tallest buildings in China and Hong Kong, showing how the country’s ambitions have strengthened a collaborative relationship between the two countries. In recent years, the expat community in China has hovered around 600,000 with Americans accounting for the second largest number, behind only South Korea.

As every athlete knows, you play your best when you play against the best. For the past few decades, China has learned from the U.S., while buying our products and providing business opportunities to our companies. “When I moved to China in 2008, all of the Chinese executives I met wanted to know what Bill Gates’ office looked like, what Google was doing,” says NBBJ partner Eric Phillips. “Now these guys are setting standards that American companies need to match.”

While architecture represents a very small piece of the complex relationship between the two countries, it shows how a competitive, two-way process can be productive for both sides. The presence of U.S. architects in China has made Chinese architects better and the flip side of this equation now is pushing American architecture and business forward.

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